Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.
And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.
The Swallow Man is not Anna’s father—she knows that very well—but she also knows that, like her father, he’s in danger of being taken, and like her father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced. She follows him into the wilderness.
Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.
Is it possible for someone to imagine reading a WWII-based book that is weird? I mean sure, we read eerie, peculiar books all the time. That is the reality of being a blogger and reviewer. A few times a month, I encounter novels that were boring, weak, stupid or the scary factor: all of the above. I went literally bananas for this book at BEA last year, and there were a few reasons why. I loved the idea of some kind of Swallow Man or spiritual literary guide for the main character, Anna. Little did I know that this would turn out to be one of the weirdest books in the history of books. It wasn’t bad, but extremely confusing, and I am still not sure if some poets or philosophers would be able to distinguish the hidden message between the lines that Gavriel Savrit implies. It’s either that I’m too dumb, or that this was written without any sort of clarity.
Sometimes when I write for English class, I realize that my main message is not clear. I have problems with that from time to time—I am a bright person who constantly has so much to say and it occasionally is difficult to put it into words. That kind of happened with Savrit’s debut YA story in this case. Anna and the Swallow Man is such a short book, too, which leaves me confused with what was the issue to write more? I would have loved more emphasis and more bizazz on the real themes of Anna’s story. This is not your typical WWII story either. I would call this story a mix of fantasy (think of the title, I don’t think birds really make any sense) and philosophy, but that’s just my take on it.
“It’s their failure, my little Anna, not yours. Men who try to understand the world without the help of children are like men who try to bake bread without the help of yeast.” (39)
I know that this story is not meant to be creepy whatsoever, but I kind of felt this confused, creeped-out vibe coming from Gavriel’s writing. To this very instant, I am still utterly confused with who the Swallow Man is. This book did not do any justice for me. Is he part of Anna’s imagination? Is Anna hallucinating or something? Is she violent? Is she mentally ill? (I wouldn’t deny it because she’s a kid in the midst of a terrorizing World War). Or do we take this in a literal context and just call the Swallow Man a creepy dude who decides to take Anna out from her ordinary society and go out on the run with her? This kind of does not make any sense, and you’re probably wondering and believing that the book was supposed to answer those questions for me. It did not, at all.
I loved the setting of this book, though. “YAY, POLAND!” I first exclaimed when I picked this one up on a gorgeous May morning in 2015. My heritage is Polish, so I have tried many times to understand its history from YA books, but it’s never really happened well. Most WWII books take place in Germany or in The Netherlands, which is just for the situation since a lot of the events occurred there, but Poland was terrorized as well. Sadly, we did not get much of a view on the war per se, but on an emotional journey of a character as she strives to survive on her own with the influence of some dude. That’s all. No biggie. *sarcasm*
I wouldn’t say that there is a reason that this book should be classified as YA fiction. I don’t remember how old she is in the book, but I know she’s not as old as I am. She’s around ten, am I wrong? Yeah, there are bombs, but I have seen/read worse. Maybe children would enjoy the light-fluffy theme of this story, but it kind was just strange for me.
“A friend is not someone to whom you give the things that you need when the world is at war. A friend is someone to whom you give the things that you need when the world is at peace.” (104)
Anna and the Swallow Man stunned me. Not because of its gorgeousness or well-writtenness (yes, that is not a word), but because of how different it was compared to other stories I have recently read. It is not a favourite for me and I will probably forget about most of it, but there were interesting, smart phrases, quotations, passages and chapters that made me look at things a little differently than I am used to. Take weirdness, mix it in with a cute little girl protagonist, add a creepy man who has birds and there you go: Anna and the Swallow Man. I must say that it is a pretty complex formula.
*A review copy was provided by the publisher via BookExpo America in exchange for a honest review. Thank you so much!*
What is the weirdest book you have read (recently or ever)? Would you take this one into consideration after I told you about its weirdness?